MetroStars pose threat to Revs
There are four very different teams heading into the Eastern Conference playoffs this October. You have the defending champion rounding into form, the conference leader which has been rolling from the start of the season, the enigmatic squad that doesn't seem as good as its record would indicate, and finally the team that snuck into the playoffs in storybook fashion.
Enter Chicago and the MetroStars, two teams who have records worthy of the playoffs, but who have been as inconsistent as you would expect to find in the brutal Eastern Conference. The Fire started the season in solid form, which proved opportunistic considering how front-loaded their schedule was. Chicago coped with the loss of Damani Ralph by finding a new young star forward in Chris Rolfe. The team also welcomed newcomers Thiago and Ivan Guerrero to an attack in need of new blood after losing the likes of Ralph, DaMarcus Beasley and Ante Razov in recent years.
The MetroStars have become the Cinderella story of the playoffs. They coped with the firing of coach Bob Bradley two weeks ago and qualifed for the playoffs by winning their final match of the season, on a goal by Bradley's son Michael no less. Tony Meola, cast aside by the Kansas City Wizards, comes back and not only helps the Metros reach the postseason, he knocks the Wizards out in the process. Throw in Mo Johnston attempting to pull a miracle playoff run in hopes of landing the head coaching job full-time, and attempting it against long-time friend and former Scotland teammate Steve Nicol, and you can understand why media outlets that have ignored the MetroStars all season are suddenly jumping back on the bandwagon.
The MetroStars might not finish the playoffs in storybook fashion but they, like the Fire, should make the Eastern Conference playoffs worth watching.
New England Revolution vs. MetroStars
Players to Watch: New England forward Taylor Twellman, midfielder Shalrie Joseph and forward Pat Noonan. MetroStars forward Youri Djorkaeff, midfielder Amado Guevara and goalkeeper Tony Meola
Twellman has been on fire in recent months, with his timing, speed and aerial prowess terrorizing opposing defenses. Noonan is also key to the Revolution's potent attacks because his presence makes defenses play Twellman honest. According to sources, Noonan is carrying an injury, which could limit his effectiveness.
While Twellman receives most of the attention for New England's success, Joseph is the team's most indispensable player. His work in the middle of the midfield, both in breaking up attacks and starting New England attacks from the defensive third, is a key reason that New England's defense has put up the stats it has.
Djorkaeff wasted little time establishing himself as one of the league's most dangerous players and it could be argued that he was the league's MVP in the season's second half. He is equally adept at taking on defenders from the deep third and dropping into midfield and slicing teams apart with his incredible passing ability.
Key Matchup: Amado Guevara vs. Daniel Hernandez
This matchup of past and present MetroStars captains will go a long way in determining the series winner. Guevara will likely be given more freedom to come forward and attack, meaning Hernandez will have the task of shutting down his passing lanes and frustrating the easily-ignitable Guevara.
The real question is which Guevara will show up. For the past month he has had the look of a player with an eye on the league exit door, his performance against Chivas last week was evidence of his lethargy. Metros coach Mo Johnston went after Guevara and the move will either light a fire under the Honduran national team captain or Guevara's poor play will lead to the Metros third straight first round exit.
X-Factors: New England midfielder Clint Dempsey and MetroStars forward Sergio Galvan Rey.
The Revs attack is at its most dangerous when Dempsey is at his best, operating in central midfield like an elusive drop of mercury. He will capitalize on the Metros' lack of a true defensive midfielder and will snake his way into the defense, seeking out its weakness. If Dempsey is on his game, the Metros will be in trouble. You think being back in the playoffs will cause Dempsey to have flashbacks of his missed penalty kick against D.C. in last year's Eastern Conference final? There can't be a better source of motivation.
Galvan Rey's second season with the Metros has been an tale of redemption. He was ridiculed in his first season for being an overpaid flop, which he was. Rather than accept the team's offer of being sold, he insisted on returning this year and responded by delivering seven goals in mainly a reserve role. He is in form and with Ante Razov struggling, Galvan Rey will get the starting nod. After having one of his best games of the season against the Revs on June 25 (when he scored a goal and drew a penalty kick), Galvan Rey is certainly confident going up against New England's back-line.
Outlook: New England finished with the best record in the East but injuries and national team call-ups prevented the Revolution from really finishing the season on a roll. It is hard to be worried about the Revs form given that they are famous for turning it up a notch in the playoffs. They will look to take advantage of the Metros' weakness on the flanks, hoping to provide quality service to Taylor Twellman, whose aerial ability gave the Metros fits in all four meetings this season. The Revs surely watched the Metros-Chivas USA match and will be looking to attack on their right flank with Steve Ralston, who could terrorize whoever Mo Johnston lines up on the Metros left wing.
Expect the Metros to attack the Revs like they did in the last meeting at Giants Stadium, a 5-4 victory. The combination of Youri Djorkaeff and Sergio Galvan Rey isn't the fastest but both have enough tricks on the ball and are both good enough passers to punish the New England back-line if the Revs extend their attack too far. For as solid a season as Michael Parkhurst has enjoyed this season, some of his worst performances have come against the MetroStars dynamic attack. Amado Guevara will be key to the contest. He will be asked to play deeper in the attack, which the Metros are hoping will lead to more scoring chances for him, as well as forcing the Revs defensive midfield to drop deeper to help their three-man defense.
The Metros are riding high after feeling the pressure of elimination for almost a month. That energy should result in a game one victory. New England will be too much in the return leg at Gillette Stadium, however, as the Revs advance to the conference final. New England wins by total goals, 4-3
DC United vs. Chicago Fire
The league is trying its best to pitch this series as an evenly-matched pairing of two teams who were close to each other all season. This is far from an honest assessment. The Fire started the season strongly, but effectively limped to the playoffs after the All-star break, posting a 4-6-1 mark that makes Chicago the only East playoff team to have a losing second half. Some will point to the fact that the Fire scored 10 goals in four meetings against D.C., but the teams have only met once in the past three months (a 3-2 D.C. victory) and the clubs have gone in opposite directions in that time.
As for D.C., the defending champions stumbled a bit at season's end, but their form in the second half was solid. They finished 8-4-1 after the All-star break and head into the playoffs with a full complement of players and few, if any weaknesses. The late-season addition of Argentine Facundo Erpen looks to have filled the team's one missing link heading into the post-season and the recent form of Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez means the D.C. attack is primed to show why it lead the league in scoring.
The Fire has a chance if it can awaken an attack that slumped badly at season's end. Chicago managed just four goals in its past five matches. Chris Rolfe was quiet in the season's last month but the Fire need him to be his dangerous and disruptive self if Chicago is to test the D.C. defense. Coach Dave Sarachan, who may need a series victory to salvage his job, must choose between a banged up Nate Jaqua, Andy Herron or Chad Barrett to pair alongside Rolfe. If he chooses wisely, the Fire have a chance. If he chooses poorly, D.C. will cruise.
Oh, and about that Freddy Adu controversy. It won't matter. Not in this series. Freddy might not see the field in this series, a fact that may have been the case even before he put his Nike in his mouth.
Players to Watch: D.C. United forward Jaime Moreno, midfielder Christian Gomez and forward Santino Quaranta. Chicago forward Chris Rolfe, midfielders Thiago and Justin Mapp.
Chicago will have to find a way to stay on Moreno, who loves to float all over the field in order to find a defense's weak spot. Santino Quaranta has not had much of an impact for his club team in recent months but his speed and ability to take on defenders will force the Fire to play him honest. Gomez is the surgeon in the middle, operating on defenses with precision that led to 11 goals and nine assists this year.
Chicago likes to attack from the wings, with Mapp and Ivan Guerrero providing speed and quality service on the flanks. The Fire need Mapp to be dangerous and test the defensive abilities of Dema Kovalenko, who happens to be the player D.C. traded Mapp to Chicago for. Thiago is quick and capable of running at defenders, but he must also not get too caught up in dribbling forays because D.C. will close him down quickly with Brian Carroll and Ben Olsen. Then there is Rolfe. Did he hit a rookie wall late in the year? If he puts enough pressure on Erpen, it will make things easier for the wing attackers.
Key Matchup: Christian Gomez vs. Chris Armas.
Whether it is Armas or Jesse Marsch, someone on the Fire must contain Gomez. While Jaime Moreno is the finalist for league MVP, it was Gomez who made the United attack go. His daring runs and incredible vision make him a tough player to track. Combine him with Moreno and you can understand why defenses have so much trouble containing D.C.
X-Factors: Chicago forward Nate Jaqua and D.C. forward Jamil Walker.
Jaqua started the year in promising fashion, scoring goals in bunches and looking like the team's go-to striker. Injuries have slowed him down but he appears healthy enough to see minutes in this series. He hasn't scored a goal since netting one in the Fire's 4-3 win against D.C. on June 29, but Jaqua's size and ability in the air are enough to trouble the D.C. back-line if he does get on the field.
Walker has emerged as United's super sub, contributing two goals and seven assists in limited minutes. His speed off the bench spells trouble for tired defenses and could be especially effective against a Chicago back-line that has trouble dealing with pace. The only question about Walker is whether he will lose his role to newly-arrived Argentine forward Lucio Filomeno.
Outlook: History suggests that the Fire should have the weapons to match up with D.C. The problem with history is that neither Ante Razov, Damani Ralph or Peter Nowak is taking the field for the Fire. Chicago's attack is limited and its defense allowed the most goals of any playoff team. The Fire's only hope is that United's form in its last two regular season matches was, in fact, a new trend, and not an aberration. Erpen had been rock solid in the center of the D.C. defense but had his worse match of the season in the finale against Columbus.
Chicago needs Guerrero and Gonzalo Segares to win the battle on the left flank against Josh Gros. If they can overwhelm Gros, and force D.C. to offer help from the central midfield, Thiago will have more room to operate. Most of all, the Fire need Rolfe, who scored three goals against D.C. this season, to be a constant threat.
The task for D.C. is simple, dominate the midfield, which it has the players to do. Defensive midfield pit bulls Carroll and Olsen will smother Thiago and control the middle, creating more opportunities for Moreno and Gomez to pick apart the Fire's physical but slow defense. Where the champs must be careful is on Kovalenko's side of the field. He is limited defensively and could be frustrated by Mapp's skills. As long as D.C. finds a good balance between reinforcing the wings and controlling the center of the field, it should have little trouble controlling this series. Expect Chicago to salvage a tie at Soldier Field and look for D.C. United to close the series out with a convincing home victory. D.C. wins series 1-0-1.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.